The first time I made Cacio e Pepe, I ate it with such dumbfounded suspicion that the person across from me actually asked if everything was alright. “I’m fine,” I gasped.
Cacio e Pepe is a pantry meal at its finest, a pasta dish so fundamentally simple, yet so elegant and unfussy and delicious, that it seems like a a fraud, a cruel joke. It’s hard to understand how the combination of starchy pasta water and grated cheese can yield such a creamy sauce, but it does, each time, and it’s good.
The best part: it’s easy and fun to make for friends, but it also feels like such a treat to eat it by yourself, with a tall glass of red wine and big piece of dark chocolate for dessert.
Cacio e Pepe, Done Right
serves one, but is easily doubled or tripled
Put a pot of salted water on to boil. Set a cast iron or heavy bottomed skillet on the stove, grind in a whole bunch of black pepper until it’s lightly coating the bottom, then turn the heat on to medium high, toasting the black pepper for around 3 minutes, or until it becomes fragrant but not burnt (you’ll start to really smell black pepper). Shake the pan a few times if you have to, then turn off the heat.
Meanwhile, cook about 1/4 pound of spaghetti according to the package instructions for al dente. Two minutes before the timer’s up, turn the heat back on over the skillet with the toasted black pepper, add a glug of olive oil, then a tablespoon of butter, letting the butter melt completely. HERE’S THE CRUCIAL PART: once the butter has started to foam, add about 3-4 tablespoons of the pasta water (more if you’re cooking enough for several people). Let that come to a boil, then when your pasta is JUST al dente, drag it directly into the skillet with tongs, letting more pasta water join the party. Turn up the heat, and toss your pasta a few times so that the strands become coated with the black pepper. Grate in a ton of parmesan cheese. The good stuff here, the kind with the rind. Because this pasta essentially has two ingredients, I really want to emphasize good parmesan for this recipe (otherwise, go nuts with the shaker stuff. Aint here to stop you). Continue to toss the pasta until it’s creamy.
Twirl it on to a plate, and serve immediately. If you salt your pasta water correctly, you won’t need more salt, but no one will be opposed to some flaky salt or more grated cheese.